My Dinner With Gracie

One of the more festive meals I’ve had lately occurred at Noche, the relatively new Latin restaurant near Times Square. As flavorful as the food is, full disclosure requires me to admit that my opinion of the cuisine may have been shaded by the fact that I didn’t have to pay for it. I’m pleased to report that my daughter did.

This wasn’t one of those situations where, after graduating from Harvard Business School and making partner at Goldman Sachs, she decided to take her mother and me to dinner, where she handed us the keys to our new Palm Beach condo out of gratitude for our having created a kid who hit the ground running.

The daughter in question is 9, not even old enough to need braces. Her likes include playing with her pet bunny, doing headstands in the living room and watching the Disney Channel approximately 80 hours a week. I’m frankly not sure what motivated Gracie’s kindness. Neither is my wife, though she thinks it may be that Gracie wasn’t satisfied with the Christmas gifts she gave us this year. I got a midget football. Debbie, my wife, received a rainbow-colored Lucite ring. Both came from Gracie’s toy chest.

“She tends to recycle her gifts,” Debbie observed. “Which is not a bad thing. But she didn’t feel good enough about it now that she’s 9.”

Noche was my choice. Gracie would have preferred Tavern on the Green, but I wasn’t going there. As far as I’m concerned, the best part about Tavern on the Green is the sparkly lights, and I can see those just as well from a cab. But I’d heard good things about Noche. Plus we know the owner, David Emil.

Gracie, as you may have gathered, is a generous child, so generous as to make me believe that generosity is an inherited characteristic. (It’s certainly not something she got from me, though; it probably came from my wife. The first time I paid to take my parents to dinner was last year, and that only happened because I took them to a club I belong to, where they couldn’t have picked up the bill even if I’d wanted them to.) Gracie would gladly have emptied both her savings account and her piggy bank for the meal. And these days, it’s hard to get out of a restaurant (with the possible exception of First Wok) for under $100 a couple, $200 when there are four of you-which, including our 14-year-old, Lucy, whom Gracie also invited, there were. As a parent, it wouldn’t have been right to let my kid wipe out her savings. So we told her the meal was going to cost approximately $40. When you’re 9, the difference between 40, 400 and 4,000 is just a few meaningless zeros. Besides, math isn’t her strongest subject. As for the logistics of the maneuver, I figured that before dessert came, I’d excuse myself to go to the bathroom, intercept our waiter and tell him to make out two checks, one for 40 bucks, the other for the difference.

I should warn the reader that this is a feel-good story. Nothing horrendous happens; Gracie doesn’t discover our deceit and spiral into a depression so profound that her pediatrician will be forced to write her an open prescription for children’s Prozac. Nor does the confusing division of the bill end in fisticuffs with our waiter.

David Emil joined us shortly after we were seated at a cozy banquette on the second of the colorfully decorated restaurant’s four levels. We proudly explained that Gracie was picking up the tab, and he seemed genuinely impressed. I’m not sure whether this was because he considered it to be an act of surprising maturity and sophistication on Gracie’s part, or-astute businessman that he is-he suddenly realized that third graders constituted a wholly untapped new market.

In any case, after he left the table, he sent over some drinks: For the adults, Mojitos, an innocent-tasting but semi-lethal concoction involving rum, mint, sugar and lime, and, for the kids, batidos-mango, guava and coconut milkshakes.

The arrival of the drinks triggered a recollection for me similar to, though hardly as extensive as, Proust’s when he bit into that madeleine. It reminded me of a couple of occasions when I was a child and my father took me to lunch at the Plaza. We’d sit at a corner table in the Edwardian Room, watching the horse-drawn carriages roll along Central Park South, and I’d feel surpassingly grown-up as I sipped my Shirley Temple. I was playing a role: that of an honorary adult, as Gracie was now as she sipped her batido and held court from the center seat of our banquette.

I realize my daughter’s experience and mine aren’t strictly analogous. She was paying for our meal with Christmas money she’d brought along in her beaded monkey purse. My father paid for our lunch using an American Express card slipped from a gold-tipped alligator billfold. But what the two experiences had in common-separated by almost 40 years-was New York. I don’t think there’s any city in the world that initiates children into the competencies of adulthood quite so artlessly. New York, despite the cult baby boomers create around their offspring and their schools, isn’t really for kids. At 5, 6 or 7, they’re already attending the ballet. By the time they’re 12, they not only know how to hail a cab, but how to tip appropriately.

Of course, Noche isn’t Le Bernardin. There are those who would argue that the restaurant-which inherited its design from the David Copperfield magic-themed restaurant it was originally meant to become-wouldn’t seem out of place in Orlando or Vegas. Gracie’s favorite part was the domed ceiling that kept changing colors. “It looked like a grown-up place, but it was fun, like a kid place,” she stated. “Actually,” she added, “it was fun like a cool grown-up place, because the colors were very bright and they had a really nice waiter that served us.”

When it came time to pay, I excused myself as planned, put the majority of the damage on a credit card and had our friendly waiter, Deon McCoy (who was more than happy to play along), ceremoniously present Gracie with the check. She was none the wiser, even leaving a generous tip.

The only problem is that now she wants to make this an annual pilgrimage-especially after hearing that Noche is going to introduce a stage show. “I think I’m going to take you back next year, when the dancers are here,” she told us as we left. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Mr. Emil doesn’t institute an entertainment charge.

My Dinner With Gracie